Amanda Love works at the Parish Centre in Magherafelt in the bustling café where she is the Head Cook. The Reading Rooms came to her attention through one of her customers, Eamon, who gave her the number of the Verbal Arts Centre. She emailed the centre and due to good timing was informed that the Reading Rooms were going to be part of an education outreach programme funded by the Mid Ulster Council. Andrea O’Donnell, our Volunteer Officer then travelled to meet Amanda and some other prospective volunteers in Cookstown.
Part of the informal process is about getting to know the new volunteers. When asked what attracted Amanda to the Reading Rooms, she explained that when she saw just how much the volunteers supported her in the Parish Centre and how much they enjoyed the experience, Amanda felt that she should do something too. So she contacted the Volunteer Centre and couldn’t believe the range and number of organisations that needed volunteer support. Amanda has always been a keen reader and felt that this opportunity would combine both her love of reading and her wish to volunteer.
Amanda was given support from Pat Bradley, the Manager at the Parish Centre to come and complete the bespoke OCN Level 2 Facilitation Skills for Shared Reading at the Burnavon Arts Centre in Cookstown in January. Amanda notes that she found the course “really interesting” and felt that she “hadn’t a clue” about the groups the Reading Rooms reach and all their needs until the course. This was all very new to her and proved to be a challenge but she found her fellow participants were “really lovely and the environment very supportive”. Her fears were soon allayed and she began to feel “relaxed especially when I realised that there was no right or wrong response in the Reading Rooms and we were there not to teach but to facilitate the group”.
Amanda has volunteered for two main groups for Reading Rooms; at the Base in Magherafelt for Learning Disabled Adults who range from their fifties to their seventies and at Bellaghy Primary School were she has worked with P6/P7. “There is a real joy in being read to, and the experience for both groups can be quite different. There is a wide range of disabilities at the centre but they still get a lot from the experience. You just learn to go with the flow. Sometimes you can go off target a bit and sometimes we have to find a simpler path through the story and poem. The key is trying to come up with the right questions to involve the groups you read to and encourage them to talk. The children are very switched on and keep me on my toes. I have to do lots and lots of prep. It can be a different kind of engagement but it is all about them.”
Amanda has loved the range of stories that have been specifically chosen for each group by the Verbal’s Literary Guide, Susanne Stich, but confesses sometimes to not being quite sure of some of the material when she first looks at it. She reflects that she was “a bit worried about the extract from ‘My Left Foot’ as I would be reading it to disabled participants at the Base but it went down great.” Amanda wasn’t surprised when I remarked that lots of groups that have disabled members – due to accidents or long term conditions such as surviving a stroke – have all been very uplifted by that first chapter of ‘My Left Foot’, which recounts how Christy Brown’s mother never gave up on him. Amanda adds “I have learnt not to worry so much about the materials. I also love how reading the poem seems to mark the ending. The poem really does give the session closure”.
When asked what she gains from being a Reading Rooms volunteer she replied: “I really enjoy the participation from the groups. I have got to know them all and if I meet them now in the street we stop and say hello. I can truly say I enjoy their company.” Amanda shared some of her highlights: “ ‘Figures in the Distance’ by Jamaica Kincaid proved to be a real find for the group. They all enjoyed it so much. They really got the humour, which she reveals she had not seen on first reading herself. “The response was just totally unexpected. Sometimes, she says, the group can retreat into themselves a bit but with this story – this time they were all participating,” which can prove to be a very special moment in a Reading Room for many of our volunteers.
Also a story and poem on the theme of swans gave the participants at the Base a real local subject to talk about: the Ballyronan swans. This brought up a vibrant debate about the new bypass and posed the question “Where would the swans go?” They talked about the cygnets and different types of swans like the Hooper swan.
Amanda didn’t note any major challenges. “Sometimes participants can float in and out with listening but that’s okay. And because we all know each other now there is always what I call good banter from week to week. The only real challenge was going straight from a session with The Base to the Primary School which took a change of mindset on my part. I always had to have several avenues prepped and had to switch to their needs quite quickly,”
So what’s special about the Reading Rooms? For Amanda, like a lot of our volunteers, the first reflection is that all volunteering is a good thing. But Amanda loves reading to others. “To have people listening to you – there is something very nice about that. You see how they are listening and you know that by the end you have engaged them. Before the Reading Rooms I had never been into poetry but now I love listening to poetry recitals. It has taught me to have a real open mind. We all interpret poetry differently and it’s fine. There is no right or wrong. I have enjoyed nearly all the poetry so far. Finally I get fantastic support from the Verbal staff – I can email or text or call. I don’t worry now as there is always someone to help. I also enjoyed the Volunteer Meeting. It was great learning about all the different experiences of the volunteers and the groups they have worked with.”
Outside of the Reading Rooms, Amanda enjoys a good murder mystery and is part of the book club in Magherafelt which meets monthly in the library. “It’s hard to single out a best read as there have been so many books over the years but I do love the Scandinavian writers. Now they know how to write a really clever story.”
Amanda has volunteered on the Mid Ulster Reading Rooms funded by Mid Ulster Council. Other volunteers from the area have linked into groups such as RNIB, the Cookstown Stroke Group,, the Willowbank Centre in Dugannon, EOTAS in Upperlands and Bellaghy Primary School.